Riunite is kind of like the Italian Boone’s Farm, which is to say, it’s usually drunk by college kids, boozy moms and the homeless. For a proud Italian to have to sell these wines as a traveling salesman is akin to a Parisian butcher turning to sell Spam door to door.
And yet, that’s just what my childhood friend Frank’s father, a proud Tuscan raised on big nuanced grapes like sangiovese and barbera, did when he immigrated to Detroit. He hawked swill to the kind of folks who put ice cubes in their Chardonnay.
It’s probably also why he was such an adamant gourmand at home. Whenever I stayed over, there were always heaping bowls of creamy carbonara infused with glistening porky specks of salty pancetta and pastry cornucopias of cannoli filled with whipped sweetened silky ricotta and a sprinkle of toasted pistachios. Once a month, the sweet perfume of thyme would roil through the house, as Frank’s father hunched over the stove caramelizing onions to make his “red gravy.” The ritual of teaching a Polish kid like me to twirl pasta with a spoon and a fork was treated by Frank’s father with the solemnity of his children’s first communion rites. A few times a year, Frank and I, and his brother Pete, would gather in the basement next to a mound of ground pork, toasted fennel and a cast-iron sausage stuffer and help unwind casings for homemade Italian sausage.
As we entered high school, Frank became a stoner (he once tried to smoke Lebanese parsley out of a tinfoil pipe when we were in junior high) and spent most of his time restoring a vintage 1978 black Trans-Am with the firebird decal on the hood (this was 1992). While we’d lost touch, those early years had a culinary influence, and penne, as much as pierogie, now coursed through my blood.
After college, I’d lived in Cleveland for a short hitch where I’d while away afternoons reading the Plain Dealer while sipping espresso and chomping down pizza at Mama Santas on Murray Hill road in the Cleveland Heights Little Italy neighborhood. The neighborhood wasn’t one of those faded communities with cultural remnants manifest in a few businesses. Murray Hill was still hardcore. I remember one local priest quoted in the paper about a bar fight between neighborhood kids and some outsiders, saying of the outsiders, “Those boys had it coming.”
Five years after moving to Chicago, I still miss Murray Hill. Now, I live close to Taylor Street, which with Mario’s Italian Lemonade, Gennaro’s and a few other places retains some of that old-school flavor, but like Maxwell Street, it’s a shadow of its former glory. I’d heard good things about the Northwest Side, and so this weekend I made the trek out and then headed to Andersonville to check out a new Sicilian pastry shop. Here are my findings:
Caputo Cheese Market – 1931 North 15th Avenue, Melrose Park
This spot has more cheese than a Wayne Newton concert, and if you’re looking for a $1,000 block of Wisconsin cheddar the size of Tank Johnson, they have it. Interesting options include Stilton infused with blueberry or chocolate. The mozzarella made behind the counter daily is a steal at $3.89 a pound, and the perfect partner to heirloom tomatoes and basil from the Green City Market this summer. Leave the cheese behind, and you’ll find the Wal-Mart of Italian grocery, a warehouse trove of salumi, bread and olive oils. Cannoli and freshly baked Ciabatta are also excellent.
Riviera Italian and American Foods – 3220 North Harlem
Known as “Da Riv” to locals, owners Carmen and Mike Pugliese sling their homemade Italian sausage, a fennel-infused delight that brought back the basement ceremonies from my youth. The “Will Special,” hot sopressata, hot cappicola, prosciutto ham, salame di prosciutto, fresh house-made mozzarella and a hint of the house-made hot giardinera served on an Italian roll, is one of the best sammies in the city.
Pasta Fresh – 3418 North Harlem
Put away the Barilla and score some fresh sheets of pasta to make your own spaghetti. The Arancini, or baseball-sized deep-fried risotto balls filled with gooey mozzarella, red sauce and green peas, should not be missed.
Pasticceria Natalina – 5406 North Clark
Natalie Zarzour, a Chicagoan trained in classic French pastry techniques in Lebanon, is recreating memories of the Italian-American bakeries she grew up with. Sheep’s-milk-ricotta-filled cannoli are airy, Barca di Crema con Frutti del Bosco, or puff pastry custard boats with strawberries and dusted with sugar, are phenomenal, and Rhum Baba cakes get another dose of rum before they go out the door. There’s no French pastry team in the back. This is a true labor of love between Natalie and her husband Nick. In fact, the couple has been so tired from busting out perfect pastry for the last three weeks since they opened, they voluntarily closed the restaurant this Tuesday to catch up on sleep. Should they go the Rip Van Winkle route, I’ll be waiting there when they wake up.
This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity Chicago.